Afternoon Dust

Changing Places

The café is crowded and full of noise: animated conversations, kitchen clatter, the scrape and chink of cutlery and glasses. Composer Sam Messer approaches groups of diners and politely asks to deposit a small cube speaker on their table. No one refuses. The cubes are initially silent, but after a while one or two of them quietly start to sound: a continuous hollow wave rushes then fades; somewhere else a ringing sine wave begins. They are hard to hear over the clamour of voices, but hearing them does something strange and unexpected to those voices, and to the room itself. The quality of the sonic environment changes somehow, while remaining the same: noises suddenly lose their character as conversation or as café ambience, and become somehow object-like, abstract and distanced. The insertion of the composed sounds turns the whole café environment into a kind of sculpture. Experiencing this shift, I can’t tell whether it reflects a simple change in my mode of listening — as if my auditory perception can only operate in one register at a time, forcing me to choose between abstract and concrete, or between sense and meaning — or whether a wider, more general change has occurred at the level of the event: the place becomes a performance. At any rate, the band warming up soon drowns out the little speakers, the effect dissipates, and I’m back in a café with the idle chatter and screech of furniture on the wooden floor.

We like to think of places as being unitary, and of ourselves as occupying a single place at a time. This is nonsense, of course, but our senses do a very good job of making it make sense. Messer’s intervention reveals how open to modification our sense of place can be: we think we know what a busy café sounds like, and artists can play with that think and that like to produce experiences of dislocation and displacement. Or, perhaps more accurately, re-location and re-placement. Katie Paterson’s 100 Billion Suns (Venice) (2011) involved firing a cannon loaded with colour-coded confetti matching the frequencies of light from a pulsar at multiple points across the city of Venice; the sudden bursts of sound and colour and the mapping of locations in the manner of an astronomical star chart made the city a site for distant stellar events. The Universe moved to Venice; the city was mapped onto the stars. For those who experienced the transient work, the meaning of Venice as a place changed: it was now linked, however tenuously, to cosmological phenomena of unimaginable energy, doused in their radiation. Of course, it had always been so; we were always simultaneously in Venice, and in the Universe. We simply never previously experienced it as such.

Place is intimately bound up with time, and time too can be subject to re-location and re-ordering. Take the work Hotel New York PS1 (1998-9) by Rotterdam artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, for example. When invited to take part in an international artists’ residency at the PS1 gallery on Long Island, New York, van Heeswijk thought about fellow Rotterdammer Willem de Kooning’s migration to that city from The Netherlands in 1924, and about how the Rotterdam headquarters of the shipping company with whom de Kooning travelled as a stowaway was now a rather fine hotel, the Hotel New York. She decided that the only thing to do was to turn the studio given to her for the residency into a hotel room, and invite other Dutch artists to enact their own ‘migration’ to New York, staying and working in the room for a few days or weeks. The décor of the room matched exactly that of rooms in that ‘other’ hotel, on the other side of the Atlantic, right down to the specific shade of paint on the walls. So Rotterdam was mapped onto Long Island; the sense of place shifted from New York to New-York-Rotterdam. But the sense of time also shifted: the present was cut away to reveal substrata of historical migration; now became now-and-then. The hotel room in New York was called the Willem de Kooning Suite, not merely in honour of the painter, but because each artist staying in it was (also) de Kooning. The economic migrations of millions of poor Europeans in the early twentieth century and the economic migrations of artists on the international art circuit at the end of that century met in the same place, at the same time — which was simultaneously another place, and another time1.

Speaking of substrata, Robert Smithson’s ‘Incidents of ‘Mirror-Travel’ in the Yucatan’ (1969) enacts a similar re-location and re-inscription of place and time by getting involved in the actual dirt of a place, showing how the earth itself can be made to show a dialectic of place/non-place and time/non-time. On a trip to the Yucatan in Mexico, he stopped at various locations and partially buried mirrors in the ground, which he then photographed. The images were then included along with a narrative account of the journey, printed in the magazine Artforum. The written article emphasised conceptions of time held by the Mayans as an alternate frame or system within which to experience the places of their ruins. What Smithson was interested in, it seems, was how a place could be made to speak its prehistory, or how that prehistory was involved in a sort of dialectical tension with its own future as ruin that formed the present experience of it as a place. The mirrors, pointing straight upwards, projected the sky’s vast scale downwards into the earth, digging back millennia, excavating a map of a prehistoric continent: “You cannot visit Gondwanaland, but you can visit a ‘map’ of it.” 2

Smithson’s interventions into the Yucatan landscape had the effect of transforming the experience of place and time, but an equally effective re-mapping occurs in the work through the act of writing and reading, as he recounts his journey of time- and place-travel to the reader in the form of a magazine article. Thinking about this, I realised that in my attempts to jot down my response to the piece by Messer with which I began, I’d inadvertently managed to accomplish a written re-mapping of my own, shifting the work of a composer from a place of music to one of visual art by placing it alongside works circulating in a visual art context. Hopefully he will not be too annoyed at this. But reading more closely, it appears that behind this place of visual art itself hide a number of other places, none of them strictly ‘visual’: Paterson’s work relies on the explosive sound of the cannon, Smithson’s work is only available as a written essay, and the central medium of van Heeswijk’s work is arguably the passport and visa. As Smithson notes as he brings his own observations to a close, “Yucatan is elsewhere”.


  1. I’ve written about Hotel New York PS1 before; van Heeswijk et al’s I Am Looking For Space and Fortune (Artimo, 2001) remains the canonical text. ↩︎

  2. Smithson, Robert (1969). ‘Incidents of ‘Mirror-Travel’ in the Yucatan’. Artforum, September 1969. Reprinted in Smithson, Robert (1996). Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. According to Wikipedia, Gondwanaland, or Gondwana, was a prehistoric continent that existed from approximately 510 to 180 million years ago, and included most of the landmasses in today’s Southern Hemisphere. ↩︎

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